Camel Pose and the Grieving Process

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Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the death of my stepfather. I spent the majority of the day denying my emotions. But then I did a camel pose.

My day started early. I was up by 6:30 a.m. I phoned my mother around 7:30 a.m. but made no mention of the significance of the day. At work, my mind wandered away from my tasks several times, and a few mistakes were made. I felt anxious and moody. So, like I often do when I feel restricted mentally and emotionally, I committed to attend yoga class in the late evening at 7:30 p.m.

Although I practice Vinyasa flow yoga on occasion, the majority of my practice is in the Bikram style—26 postures and 2 breathing exercises performed in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and lasting 90 minutes.

I have been practicing Bikram yoga for a little over a year and still find myself frustrated by the heat. Instructors refer to the room as a torture chamber, but as most yogis know, being tortured while practicing is about mind over matter: if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. I try, try, and TRY to always remember this even if the teachers fail to remind me themselves.

Speaking of teachers, I love them all where I practice but each for very different reasons:

Diane, the owner at Bikram Yoga Rockville (BYR), infuses her classes with a lot of humor and encouragement. I’ll try to get to one of her classes on days I’m feeling like a party pooper and need to snap out of my “angry-Paula” mode.

Debby is all about proper form and alignment. If I want to be humbled and reminded that my practice isn’t even close to being perfect, I attend one of Debby’s classes. I learn a lot about anatomy and why it’s important to break bad habits before they break me.

Spencer is extremely patient and relaxed. I want to be more like Spencer in that regard. I take his classes for obvious reasons. Plus, he’s always smiling, which seems to be contagious.

Elizabeth is the total opposite of me: she’s extroverted, sexy, and she has the most calming and even-toned voice of all the instructors at BYR. Her class generates energy that can only come from pure passion. Elizabeth is passionate!

On this particular evening on the anniversary of my stepfather’s death, Elizabeth was teaching. She was wearing a funky, asymmetrical top and shimmering, long yoga pants along with her signature flower in her hair. She, of course, was her usual bubbly self, and I quickly became focused on her voice and my breathing.

As most Bikram yogis know, there are two master poses in the Bikram series: triangle (trikonasana) and camel (ustrasana). Triangle is a standing posture that uses every muscle in your body (if you do it properly, that is). Camel is the deepest backward bend in the Bikram series. But even if backward bends are easy for a yogi, it’s not the physical exertion that makes camel the most exhilarating. It’s the emotional impact camel has on our inner spirit.

Camel opens up our heart chakra (anahatra). It’s our heart chakra that allows us to love others and ourselves, empathize, and to accept things divinely. Unfortunately, our heart chakra can be easily blocked or congested. Events like a divorce or the end of a relationship, abandonment, abuse, and the death of a loved one can cause an imbalance of the heart chakra. Negative emotions such as hatred, guilt, selfishness, paranoia, impatience, and self-pity are all signs that our heart chakra needs recharged and repaired. Camel pose can help kick-start both processes.

On Elizabeth’s cue, I came to the front of my mat, stood on my knees with about six inches between them and six inches between my feet, place my hands on my lower back with my thumbs facing the floor, tilted my head back until I could see the lotus flower painted on the wall behind me, and then leaned back lifting my chest as high as I could while pushing the rest of my body forward. Gravity takes over.

Instantly, I sensed a change from within. Something stirred. Something caused me to become nauseous. I had to release early, before Elizabeth’s instruction. I quickly turned around and relaxed in savasana and attempted to gain control of my spinning head. Then I had to do it again. (All 26 postures are performed twice in the series.)

Upon returning to savasana for the second time, Elizabeth repeats words she often shares:

“Quickly lie down in savasana and breathe in that smooth camel flavor. Your heart chakra has opened. If you have a heart, that is.”

I have a heart. About 10 minutes later while driving the short distance from the studio to my home, I cried. I hadn’t allowed myself to cry all day. I denied my emotions and hadn’t mourned when I needed to mourn.

Thank you, camel pose. Thank you, yoga. Namaste!

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